Here’s another edition of “Dear Sophie,” the advice column that answers immigration-related questions about working at technology companies.
“Your questions are vital to the spread of knowledge that allows people all over the world to rise above borders and pursue their dreams,” says Sophie Alcorn, a Silicon Valley immigration attorney. “Whether you’re in people ops, a founder or seeking a job in Silicon Valley, I would love to answer your questions in my next column.”
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I started working for my current employer on STEM-OPT, but I’ve lost out in the H-1B lottery four times. Thankfully, my employer transferred me to an international office, and I am now coming back to the U.S. on an L-1 visa.
I’ve heard many complaints from my classmates about not being able to switch employers on an L-1 visa. I don’t see myself staying at my employer for six more years, which is the estimated time until I can get a green card based on my employer’s internal policy.
What are my options for changing my immigration status so I can work at a startup in the U.S. within a year or two?
— Tenacious Transferee
Welcome back to the United States! Thanks for sharing your immigration story and reaching out to me about options. I love to hear about employers that are willing to go the extra mile to retain talented international hires!
Before I dive into your question about your options, let’s go over some basics about work visas and employment-based green cards.
Work visa basics
A work visa, which is also called a non-immigrant visa, is tied to the employer that offers you a job, sponsors you for the visa and files the visa application on your behalf. A work visa enables you to live in the U.S. and work for that employer for a limited amount of time.
The L-1A visa for an intracompany transferee manager or executive and the L-1B visa for an intracompany transferee with specialized knowledge are both temporary work visas. The L-1A allows for a maximum stay of seven years in the U.S. — three years initially followed by two renewals that give you two years each. The L-1B provides for a maximum stay of five years in the U.S. — three years initially and then one two-year renewal.
Regardless of which visa you have when you switch jobs, your new employer will likely need to petition you for a new non-immigrant work visa before you start your new role. Be mindful about maintaining your status by legally working and receiving pay stubs before you change status to the future company so that you can remain in the U.S. for the switch and keep any future green card applications safe.
Also, keep in mind that when you enter the U.S. or talk with U.S. immigration officials while you have a non-immigrant visa, you must demonstrate that you intend to eventually return to your home country, unless you are seeking certain classes of non-immigrant status such as H-1B specialty occupation, an O-1 extraordinary ability or an L-1 intracompany transferee.
The H-1B and L-1 are dual-intent visas, which means they are non-immigrant visas, but you can express your intent to pursue a green card to remain in the U.S. permanently. While not technically a dual-intent visa, the O-1 allows for dual-intent: an individual does not have to maintain foreign residency and filing for a green card does not disqualify the individual from obtaining or keeping an O-1 visa.